TORONTO POLICE IN 1870 -1920
as Urban Missionaries
the new Toronto City Police were reformed to meet a growing perceived threat
from “dangerous classes” within the community, the strategy gradually
shifted from being prepared to shoot down rioting mobs to a more systematic
regulatory supervision of the working class life in Toronto.
Helen Boritch describes this as the “class control” function of
19th century policing.
Toronto Police were seen as a force that could serve as an efficient
“instrument in curbing the immorality of society.”
Egged on by 'respectable' opinion, the Toronto Police began to define
the moral reform of the poor as its particular vocation. At the same time,
the Toronto constable prevented by regulations from living in lower-income
neighborhoods and associating with lower class citizens in his off-duty
hours, was kept aloof from the lower classes.
Bay 1886 -- oil painting by George A. Reid
of all aspects of working class people's lives was the goal set before the
police. To begin with, the
force strove to curb the more unruly aspects of popular culture, prohibiting
bonfires, restraining weekend revels, banning firecrackers, and curbing the
activities of 'mischievous urchins' who sought to soil the crinoline dresses
of respectable ladies on national holidays.
Arresting drunks and prosecuting prostitutes became a major focus of
Toronto Police activity.
of responding to citizens’ complaints of specific offenses, the Toronto
Police now more often sought out on their own initiative what they felt were
offenses against 'public order.'
the offices of the Police Commission, the Toronto Police also had the power
to create bylaws they felt necessary for public order.
Liquor Arrest on Queen West near Simcoe Street circa 1917
[Toronto City Hall Clock Tower visible in background.]
with their responsibilities for liquor license controls and the enforcement
of the newly emerging Sabbatarian laws, the Toronto Police began to see
themselves more like urban missionaries assisting various other institutions
in cleaning up Toronto. Before
the creation of the Humane Society in 1887 and the Children’s Aid Society
in 1891, the Toronto Police oversaw animal and child welfare, regulating
child support and abuse, for example.
(Although it is entirely Dickensonian that the Humane Society was
formed before Children’s Aid.)
the later nineteenth century, a small but steady increase of
"foreigners" amongst the once exclusively British population once
again shifted security concerns on ethnic lines.
Italians, Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, and Chinese were beginning to
settle in the city. When
Chinese immigrants began to open laundries, lawyers representing British
laundry operators petitioned the Police Commission to license the business.
It was pointed out to the Commission that Chinese laundries were
largely increasing to the detriment of the white people engaged in that
The next year the Chief reported "the Chinese are invading
districts where their presence is considered objectionable by the residents.
I think the location of such laundries be subject to police
It was done so the next year: for "improved sanitary conditions,
less danger from infection, prevention of gambling, opium smoking,
etc," the licensing of laundries was delegated to the Toronto Police in
industrial growth, and advancing public transit systems, continued to
further geographically polarize Toronto's citizens by income and class.
Modern transportation gave further rise to the exclusively wealthy
neighborhoods like Rosedale and Lawrence Park while industrialization
intensified the density of slums like Parkdale and The Ward.
By the close of the century the Toronto Police were directly involved
in virtually every corner of low-income communities, from private life to
commerce and entertainment.
series of commercial bylaws and license regulations were introduced by City
Council and the Police Commission to be enforced by the Toronto Police. Most
of these affected commercial activity of low-income citizens: cab drivers, street vendors, corner grocers, tradesmen, rag
men, junk dealers, laundry operators, etc. All required a license from the
police to operate. Unlike
middle-class businesses, which were regulated by the Province, working class
enterprises fell under the jurisdiction of the Toronto Police.
As we have seen with the Chinese laundries, each new licensing
provision often had a deeper hidden agenda.
Vendors, for example, were prohibited from plying their trade in
upper scale neighborhoods or in front of the better theaters, hotels, and
a function of class control, some police responsibilities in low-income
communities it could be argued had positive and progressive functions.
In the days before social services, the Toronto Police functioned as
a social mega-agency, operating juvenile services, shelters for homeless,
enforcing child support payments backed with the power of arrest.
The police ran the ambulances and they acted as the Board of Health.
Police stations at the time were designed with space for the housing
of homeless, and virtually no other organization in Toronto dealt with this
problem. On the eve of the
Great Depression, in 1925, the Toronto Police would house 16,500 homeless
Family: 152 Spadina Avenue, March 1916 (Toronto Board of Health
Item No. 423)
some of the positive aspects of the police function in the low-income
community, the Toronto Police nevertheless, represented middle and upper
class property-owning interests. Perhaps
nowhere were the Toronto Police more intrusive than in their attempt to
regulate the morality of Torontonians through a series of Sabbath and Public
once observed that the "criminologist's definition of 'public order
crimes' comes perilously close to the historian's description of working
class leisure time activity.” Under
public order provisions, the Toronto Police were responsible for the
licensing and regulation of dance halls, pool halls, theaters, and later
movie houses. They were
responsible for censoring the content of not only theatrical performances
and movies, but of all literature in the city ranging from books to posters
the most intrusive series of bylaws were the Sabbath laws, which even today,
remain a source of controversy in Toronto.
The Sabbath laws were introduced at the behest of various citizen
committees in the late 19th century, demanding that various recreational and
commercial activities be prohibited on Sundays.
The demands of these committees became so shrill that tobogganing in
High Park on Sundays was prohibited and even streetcars were not allowed to
run on the Sabbath.
Toronto Police were forced to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy
enforcing Sabbath laws. Again,
there was a lurking hidden agenda behind the Sabbath laws that went the
beyond religious issues. Most
workers endured a six-day workweek consisting of ten or twelve-hour shifts,
and Sunday was their only day off.
could be argued that the ancillary intention of the Sabbath laws was to
minimize and suppress the movement and congregation of working class
citizens in their free time. Streetcars
were prohibited to operate on Sundays, yet no wealthy Torontonian was
prohibited from running his private carriage or requiring his chauffeur to
work Sundays. While Torontonians were strictly prohibited from buying and
consuming liquor on Sundays, this prohibition did not extend into the
private homes and clubs of the wealthy.
As one woman convicted of drunkenness at the time, stated to the
magistrate, "The only difference between me and Lady Flaherty in
Rosedale is that I don't have a powdered flunkey to carry me up to bed when
I get drunk."
some misguided police constable charged several members of the Toronto Golf
Club in 1895, for playing on Sunday, the courts quickly put the matter
straight and dismissed the charges. The court ruled, "golf is not a
game of ball similar in any sense to the games enumerated in, or intended to
be prohibited by the statute," such as boys playing ball in the park.
this kind of intense petty regulatory control would remain the function of
the Toronto Police until the 1920s when proactive crime fighting gradually
became its primary function.
Some of the worst
of Toronto's slums lay beneath the windows of City Hall. (The
Ward: Elizabeth Street, 1912.)
Toronto Police and Crime in the Nineteenth Century
is little discussion in this website about the relationship between crime and
the Toronto Police. That is because there was not much of a relationship.
If we define “crime” as offenses against persons and property
such as murder, robbery, rape, and theft, as opposed to “public order”
or “morality” offenses such as drunkenness, disorderly behaviour,
vagrancy, prostitution and gambling, then crime was of little consequence in
Toronto throughout the nineteenth century.
Not only that, but crime rates in Toronto declined throughout most of
her analysis of arrest statistics in Toronto, Helen Boritch found that:
trend in criminal arrests for nineteenth century Toronto provides further
support for the general thesis that the processes of rapid urbanization
and industrialization did not produce increases in criminal behaviour or
official criminality. Instead,
there is a substantial empirical basis to suggest that crime actually
declined throughout this era.
decline in crime rates in the nineteenth century American and European
cities has been confirmed by numerous studies.
As one study concluded, “The linking of crime, violence and
disorder to urban growth must fall into the category of things people simply
want to believe for the belief rests on no substantial foundation of
fact or systematic analysis.”
John Beattie’s study of attitudes to crime in Upper Canada in the 1830s
with which this essay began to the figures to be quoted below, the threat of
traditional crime against persons and property was never a major factor in
the evolution of Toronto’s policing policy.
Politics, fear of external enemies and rebellion from within were the
quick glance at statistics of arrests in Toronto in 1850 and in 1860, when
the city was in the process of reforming its police, although not a complete
picture (because arrests can also reflect police and political policy,
reporting patterns, etc, as much actual crime rates) nonetheless suggest the
premise that the crime rate was indeed declining.
The population of Toronto in 1850 was approximately 30,000;
in 1860 it was 44,500.
of the Toronto arrests were as follows:
Drunk & Disorderly
|Receiving Stolen Property
|Burglary and Robbery
can discern the reformer impetus in the new police and its reorganization in
the inflated number of arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct.
There is a rise in the rate of larceny but crime rates for offenses
such as assault, robbery, and rape decline.
In neither of the two sample years are any homicide arrests recorded.
the entirety of nineteenth century policing in Toronto unfolded outside the
context of traditional criminality. The
role that the Toronto Police play as crime fighters today is a relatively
new one. Although the Toronto
Police Service traces a direct lineage administratively to the nineteenth
century force, the functions and purposes of the two institutions are
Toronto Police began as a small English style parish watch, which until 1860
was inadequate and corrupt and tightly controlled by local municipal
patronage. By the end of the
century it was a complex institution primarily tuned to serve two functions:
to fight rebellion by force in the city streets and later to
systematically regulate potentially rebellious classes of inhabitants.
Fighting rebellion, overall, was the operative function, not
preventing crime and apprehending criminals.
What distinguishes the Toronto Police of that period is its inherent
inclination to the moderation in its use of force, both personal and
collective by its constables—an inclination incorporated in its standing
orders and demonstrated by its behaviour in the second half of the century.
the Toronto Police served also as a crime fighting force, with all the
accoutrements of that function—handcuffs, detectives, identification
photography, holding cells, etc., its crime fighting function was contained
in its general purpose of maintaining peace and protecting the property of
its patrons. Traditional crime
itself, did not determine the primary evolution of the police until well
into the twentieth century.
the Toronto constables were indeed “formidable engines of oppression” in
the hands of the Toronto City Council during the first twenty years, it was
nonetheless, the same body that eventually carried out the reform of the
police, albeit with some nagging from the Province.
Those reforms of 1857-59 have given us the current regulatory system
under which policing functions in Ontario today.
NEXT PAGE: TORONTO NOTORIOUS: HISTORIC
CRIME SCENE PHOTOS